Crime and Punishment in Wapping (1)

A compendium of crime in the 17th Century

Today much of our understanding of the criminal justice system comes from the media and crime novels and dramas. Other than looking at crime maps, and the odd reference in a local paper, I find I have no visibility or awareness of crimes in the local area, so it has been with some interest that I have been reading the proceedings of the Old Bailey, more formally known as the Central Criminal Court over two hundred years ago.

I present here two cases of interest on Wapping, I’ll summarise more as I make my way through the proceedings.


The manslaughter of Thomas Young, 1679

In 21st century Wapping, we are fortunate that we don’t see guns on the street, but in the 17th century, a light spot of pistol practice on board a moored ship seems to be a sensible idea, even when hemmed in by other ships. Interestingly, the accused isn’t named, possibly because of his age.

In the Afternoon, on Wednesday, a Lad belonging to a Ship, called the Laurence and Mary, lying below Wapping-dock , was Tryed for Killing one Tho. Young on board another Ship, called the Advance, lying hard by the former. The Prisoner was trying his skill in shooting at the Cat-head of his own ship as a Mark;

So, to recap, a boy, on a ship on the river thought it sensible to practice his shooting whilst moored on probably the busiest waterway in the world at the time, next to another ship, aiming at the cathead – a beam on the side of the bow of the ship. Surely nothing could go wrong with this plan?

[…] but the Bullet glancing thereon, flew to the other ship, and through the boards of the great Cabbin, and there unhappily killed the said Young, who was casually come on board to see the Ship, hitting him in the Forehead, that he presently died;

You’ve got to pity this poor lad – he’d stacked the odds of hitting his target heavily against himself to start off with, but against these odds of firing a 17th century gun on a heaving ship at a relatively small target, he manages to hit his mark, only for the bullet to ricochet and pass into another ship, just as the even more unfortunate Thomas Young was having a nosey round.

whereupon they that were with him running out on the Deck, and enquiring who fired that Piece, the Prisoner own’d it, and presently came on board of his own accord; declaring both then, and now at the Bar, his hearty sorrow for the Mischance: for as he had no malice, so could he not ever see the person dead, or those that were with him, because they were in the Cabbin as aforesaid.

The proceedings clearly acknowledge the unfortunate chain of events, but even though it was unlikely he could have foreseen his target practice ending quite as badly as they, the court fell obliged to hand out punishment.

However, it being adjudged an unlawful Act in him to shoot so negligently on the River, where so many Vessels and People are continually passing, he was found Guilty of Manslaughter , and carries a Memorandum in his Hand , to make him and others more wary for the future.

What needs to be explained here, is that the fellow’s punishment of a memorandum, was not being presented with a leaflet on the dangers of maritime target practice, but a brand – burning his flesh, to make him remember what a pratt he was.

Human branding continued as a punishment in the UK until 1829.
Original text.

Something up his sleeve? 1682

Moving on from the most unfortunate criminal of the 17th century, to Abraham Kent, possibly one of the most stupid.

Abraham Kent was Tryed for Stealing Iron Bolts for Ships and other things , from James Yeames of Wapping , on the 13th. of April last;

So far so simple – a man put on trial for the theft of some ironmongery. I wonder how they managed to put two and two together in a time before serial numbers, DNA and finger printing?

one of them upon Evidence, appearing to be found in his Breeches,

So that answers that question – he had them in his pants. Well, I’m sure there’s a sensible explanation for that.

yet he denied that he ever Stole any,
Trying to keep an open mind – maybe he just keeps bolts in his pants.
but that coming through the Yard, he gathered up some Chips, amongst which was the Bolt; then being demanded why he concealed it in his Breeches, he alledged that his Breeches being Ragged, it droped into them contrary to his knowledge;

 Ah! He picked up some woodchips and didn’t notice the iron bolts fall into his trousers without knowing. If only he hadn’t put on his ragged breeches! Surely the law will understand this?

but these silly excuses excused him not, for it appearing that he was a Notorious Pilferer, the Jury brought him in Guilty .

Oh- but he was a notorious pilferer- perhaps having a more plausible excuse might have aided. His punishment? Whipping. However, he may feel he got off lightly, in the same session four people were sentenced to execution, six for branding and one to transportation.

Original text.

More cases to follow!

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